It's great, really, how free and open everyone is on Facebook with sharing what they think and feel. Candid and blunt status updates, goofy pictures ... it's like an unfiltered look into the lives of friends, family and stray acquaintances we'll likely never speak to again.
Except that it's not. You see, even those communications are filtered. Because these friends (or "friends") of ours had to decide whether or not they wanted to share that information in the first place. Whether they should have shared it is another matter altogether. But at least we know they wanted it out there.
But now we all have a way to achieve truly unfiltered, uncensored -- and likely unintentional -- sharing. And if this sounds like a glorious moment in the evolution of the Internet, then clearly you haven't accidentally told all 342 of your friends that you just read an article titled "5 Signs You May Have Chlamydia."
Social readers a little too social?
The most popular social readers are offered by news providers like the Washington Post, Yahoo! and The Guardian. You've probably seen updates from friends using these apps in your News Feed for a few months now. The basic idea is that Facebook users install the reader and any time they read an article from the app's host (Washington Post, Yahoo!, etc.) or its partner sites, all of their friends will see it.
From the Post's own app description: "Once you're using the app, the stories you read will be instantly shared with your friends, and your friends' reads will be shared with you, creating a socially powered newswire of intriguing articles."
Wheee! Sounds great! A buzzing news-hive of communally shared and discussed articles! It's 21st century Salon Society!
But can I describe to you the look on my face when I saw that a super-nice, professionally accomplished, married father and friend of mine had just read an article comparing the respective merits of "The Bachelor" contestants' breast sizes?
No. I cannot. It is simply not possible. (Thankfully though I found this image, which comes reasonably close to nailing it)
The problem here is that many people using these social readers -- and the Washington Post's has more than 17 million users alone -- aren't completely aware that no action is required on their part to broadcast whatever article it is that they're reading. Potentially embarrassing to them, also kinda annoying to all of their friends. "Social spammer" may actually be a more accurate description than "social reader."
A little more friction, please?
As well-intended as the apps may be, the core issue is something called "frictionless sharing." It's a pretty recent development, and in short it means sharing your online activities without specifically telling a program you want to share that activity. No "Recommend" or "Share" button required. It's what's working in the background to tell all of your pals what you're listening to on Spotify, and it's what's in play with social readers, too.
You don't even have to bother actually reading an article -- merely clicking "Conception Tips For Beginners" for a quick inspection then leaving it could blast all of your friends with the good (and previously very private) news that you and your significant other are trying to have a baby. This, by the way, is a really terrible way for your mom to find out that you and your significant other are trying to have a baby.
Apps which incorporate frictionless sharing just ask you during installation if you're cool with sharing everything with your social circle. Lots of people arrive at the "Install" screen after clicking an article one of their friends who use the reader has shared. You can only read it if you, too, get the app. So folks tend to just click an approval button like the Washington Post's "Okay, read article" and boom -- now you're in the Matrix.
Facebook has heard the groans of objectors, but remains staunchly behind sharing sans friction. In a statement, they said of the haters, "We couldn't disagree more and have built a system that people can choose to use and we hope people will give it a try. If not, they can simply continue listening and reading as they always have."
And "they" can also choose to restrict which actions they broadcast to friends; it's a privacy option on many social readers, though the default setting is almost always full-speed share.
Want to beat the system?
Pretty much from its debut last fall, frictionless sharing has generated a lot of ... friction. Read Write Web took stock of it and concluded "frictionless sharing needs some serious tweaking." The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article with the headline "Why you should stop using social reader apps," in which James Temple writes that "frictionless sharing flips the very notion of online sharing on its head ... it's borderline spam," and adds that "social apps make [Facebook] a less interesting and more annoying place to spend time."
In fairness, so does soliciting me to buy a bridge for your fake city and assaulting people with drippy inspirational quotes passing for status updates. But the big difference here seems to go back to that old idea of intending to hit me up for your CityVille benefit, versus not.
Of course, we here at HLNtv.com understand fully the irresistible appeal of a tantalizing headline. Sometimes when you see a friend has just read "Couple Lost in Corn Maze Calls 911," you simply have to click it. The good news is you can install the social reader, skim the article and still cover your virtual tracks. It just takes a few more clicks.
The Washington Post's app, for example, offers a small "Mark as Unread" option at the bottom of its articles to help keep your news habits a bit more anonymous. Likewise, The Guardian's has a 'Remove From Timeline' link at the top of its stories. You just have to remember to click these things once you're done learning exactly what happened to that poor couple in the corn.
The other option for anyone whose concerns about privacy or fear of public humiliation slightly outweigh their article curiosity is to lean on Google. A quick 'copy and paste' of an intriguing headline into Google News should yield the article you're looking for, while allowing you to bypass the social reader's installation process. And if even that is too burdensome, there's an add-on for Google Chrome which basically does the same thing, but you don't even have to copy and paste. Just click the link in your News Feed and you'll get the Google News search results.
And we think it has the perfect name: the Facebook Unsocial Reader.
Do you use a social reader on Facebook? Do your friends? Have they shared any horrifyingly unfortunate articles? Give us your take on this tech in the comments.